Rock Hill man apologizes on TV for 1961 attack on congressman

Fists turn to handshake, hope prevails in D.C.

Columnist, The HeraldFebruary 4, 2009 

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left, talks with Elwin Wilson of Rock Hill in Lewis' Washington, D.C., office Tuesday while taping an interview for "Good Morning America" with reporter Claire Shipman. Wilson apologized for his role in a 1961 incident at a Rock Hill bus station where Lewis, then part of the "Freedom Riders," was assaulted. Below right, Lewis and Wilson look at a copy of Lewis' book before during taping.

ANDY BURRISS • ABURRISS@HERALDONLINE.COM

Editor's note: This story was first published Feb. 4, 2009

WASHINGTON -- All U.S. Rep. John Lewis knew for almost 48 years is that at Rock Hill's bus station, somebody with white fists beat him to the ground.

Some tall, rangy bruiser in a "group of young men" busted his lip open, bloodied his black face -- just for trying to enter the waiting room marked "Whites."

The fists knocking him senseless May 9, 1961, had stayed fresh in his memory, even after the blows vanished into the history of the holy cause for black men and white men to be equal.

"I knew someone attacked me on May 9, but I wouldn't have recognized him," said Lewis of 1961.

Tuesday, those same white fists came back into his life. The hands were inches from Lewis' black face again. This time, not clenched. This time, trembling, hoping. That long-ago white face of hate sat in a chair next to him.

"I am ashamed of it," said the man behind the fists. "I hate to admit it."

The right fist came to Lewis on Tuesday in the form of an outstretched hand hoping to be shaken. And then the open arms of Elwin Wilson, who lamented that he wished he'd had the valor to offer a handshake so long ago, when he admittedly hated almost all black people and used his fists to show he meant business.

Then, without pause by either man, an embrace by two men who met so briefly so long ago with the crush of punches to the face.

"I am sorry," Wilson said to Lewis.

Lewis, 68, who had been a 21-year-old seminary student in 1961, said without pause, to the only man to ever admit being one of the mob who beat him and another civil rights protester: "I forgive you."

Important for the country

Wilson's in-person apology -- which followed an apology he made in a Jan. 24 article in The Herald -- is not only important to Rock Hill and South Carolina, but "all around the country," Lewis said.

The spirit of the cause for civil rights always was love and redemption, Lewis said, never malice or hate. Even after beatings. The cause for equality has taken years to take root in people such as Wilson, but it has turned from a seed into a majestic canopy of human togetherness. It happened Tuesday in Lewis' office on Capitol Hill, with the Capitol building looming through a window.

It happened in a room filled with civil rights memorabilia, photos, history of a changed America. It happened with a black president, just two weeks into office, less than a mile down a busy Pennsylvania Avenue, in the capital of America.

It came as buzzers sounded to call a black congressman to vote.

Lewis described this in-person apology as "amazing, unreal, unbelievable."

But it was real, offered by the man with the fists.

"For Mr. Wilson to come here and offer an apology, it is many, many miles down a long road," Lewis said. He talked about the "power of reconciliation." The "capacity to change."

Then he said again: "I forgive you."

Others over the years had told Lewis "they were sorry for what happened to me" when Lewis was a member of the "Freedom Riders" who protested segregation. Others had told him what had happened then was wrong.

But here, on this cold and windy Tuesday, sat a 72-year-old man named Elwin Wilson who had the courage to say, "It was me."

"I never had any idea this would occur, never thought it could happen," Lewis said. "This shows the power of love. Of grace. Of people being able to say I am sorry. I deeply appreciate it. This is meaningful."

Wilson has dealt with his hatred for blacks all his adult life. It was not inherited, he told Lewis, not taught by family. But he hung around the wrong crowd, he told Lewis, and he can't even recall who else was in that mob that day that met the Freedom Riders' bus at the downtown Rock Hill station just a few days into the ride through the South.

"I didn't know who he was," Wilson said of Lewis in 1961.

Face to face

But because Wilson read in the Jan. 21 edition of The Herald, a day after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, about other protesters he had heckled and wanted to beat up in 1961 -- he wanted to apologize.

He knew he had done wrong, and he wanted to tell anybody who would listen that he was sorry. He told those Rock Hill protesters in person a few days later and now he told John Lewis -- man to man, face to face.

"I should have been shaking his hand instead of beating him up with my fists," Wilson said Tuesday.

After the beating in 1961, Lewis and the other protester, a white man named Al Bigelow, declined to press charges because the protest was rooted in non-violence.

"We were all victims of the system," Lewis said of segregation. "I had no ill feeling toward Mr. Wilson. What we wanted to do was change customs, change laws."

During the meeting that lasted the better part of an hour under the glare of "Good Morning America" TV lights for a segment that might air later in the week, Lewis and Wilson sat side-by-side. The show brought Wilson to Washington after The Herald article ran, and Wilson was nervous. But he followed through.

"I had to," Wilson said. "It was time to meet the man and apologize."

When Wilson spoke, Lewis turned to face Wilson and listened. His gaze never wavered from the face of the man who had beaten him so badly that day.

John Lewis never did anything but love that man back, and forgive.

"I hold no grudge," Lewis said. "Hate is too heavy a burden to bear."

Lewis spoke plainly, like the preacher he is, of the fellowship of human beings.

"We are all in the family of humankind," he said.

Proud of his father

Lewis listened, rapt, as Wilson's son, Chris -- an infant in May 1961 -- spoke of the shame of having a racist father. Lewis listened to Chris Wilson speak of his pride in his father for having the guts to change.

"He was a hard person, growing up," Chris Wilson told Lewis of his racist father. "He embarrassed me. I am proud he has come here today and done this."

Elwin Wilson pulled no punches in 1961, and he pulled none Tuesday.

He told Lewis that in the 1980s when his parents died, and they were buried in a cemetery that allowed black graves, he wanted to have the bodies moved. He told Lewis of tying a rope around a black doll's neck and hanging it from a tree in his front yard. But Wilson asked Lewis, as he already has asked so many blacks, to give him the chance to admit he was wrong.

"I walked forward, but I couldn't walk backwards," Wilson said of the racist acts that characterized his life. "That's what I am doing now."

Tuesday's apology can be a start to halting the burden of hate and race in America, Lewis said.

"We are one people, one family," Lewis told Wilson. "We are all children of God."

King would be proud

Lewis told Wilson that not only would Wilson's late parents be proud of him, but so would the late Martin Luther King Jr.

Lewis worked with King throughout the 1960s before a white racist shot and killed him on a Memphis motel balcony in 1968 during the fight for equality.

"Dr. King taught us to love and forgive, and a lot of people are proud of you," Lewis told Wilson. "You are leading the way for a lot of people."

Lewis, a congressman since 1987 representing much of greater Atlanta, gave Wilson a copy of his memoirs, "Walking With the Wind." Inscribed in it were the words: "To Elwin Wilson: With faith and hope. Keep your eyes on the prize."

That phrase from the civil rights movement always meant don't fight back with fists, don't hate who hates you, but remember that equality was what mattered.

Not vengeance.

Wilson said Tuesday, so long from May 9, 1961, was a different day. Different week, month, year.

"A different life," Wilson said.

"It was wrong for people to be like I was," Wilson said. "But I am not that man anymore."

Then Lewis said with a smile: "A different road."

Hope is Elwin Wilson's middle name, and the middle name of his son, Chris. Chris had lived with his father's hate all his life. In Washington after an hour of forgiveness, Chris Wilson told John Lewis of his father, "I've been hoping for him for 48 years."

Then the men shook hands again and hugged. Not a fist in sight anywhere. No blood on a bus station floor.

John Lewis, inches from Elwin Wilson's face, the men so long separated by color and time, said: "It is good to see you, my friend."

BROADCAST INFORMATION

ABC's "Good Morning America" had planned to air Elwin Wilson's apology today, but the network said late Tuesday that it might air later in the week on WSOC-TV, Comporium cable channel 4 in most of York County.

Andrew Dys | 329-4065 | adys@heraldonline.com

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